Wednesday, 13 July 2011

An Interview with David Powell of Torbreck

When a winemaker slams Lafite as "not being as good as half the second growths", you know that you are talking with someone who speaks his mind. That someone is David Powell, winemaker and owner of Torbreck. Mr Powell is no stranger to controversial opinions. Last September he released Australia's most expensive wine, the Torbreck 2005 The Laird at AUD700 a bottle. By comparison, Penfolds Grange, a wine with a rich heritage and proven track record sells for AUD600 a bottle. The pricing is a bold effort to raise the image of Australian wines, which over the years has cultivated a "cheap and good" image. All 400 cases of The Laird have already sold out, proving that money is not a consideration for those looking to get Laird.

I had the opportunity to speak to David while he was in Singapore last week. An energetic and forthright man, he gives a clear direction for where he wants Torbreck to be positioned in the hierarchy of Australian wines, which is at the very top. His winemaking approach is highly focused on what happens in the vineyard and he says that "During harvest, I don't spend much time in the winery. I spend more time in the vineyards, tasting fruit, talking to growers, stuff like that... I don't want to have to start manipulating things to make up for deficiencies in the vineyard". David is adamant about making the growers part of the winemaking process. To this end, Torbreck holds an annual Growers' Night six months after the vintage (but before the blending process) where all the wines from individual vineyards are laid out and labelled with the grower's name. Each grower is also provided with a dozen bottles of wine made from single varietals from his vineyard. This allows the grower to judge the quality of their fruit and to compare it with other growers.

Torbreck produces 60000 cases of wines yearly, about half of which is the Woodcutter Shiraz. The higher end range is comprised of the Runrig, Descendant, and Factor labels made from ancient, dry-grown (non-irrigated) Shiraz vines. The wines tend to be big and rich, coming as they do from from the Barossa which has a warm, Mediterranean climate. In several aspects though, David's winemaking differs from what is traditionally practiced in the Barossa. For example, he uses French oak instead of American oak, because "French oak pulls the wine back a little and gives it more finesse". He also uses open-top fermenters, which help dissipate the volatile alcohols during fermentation. In essence, this means that he can pick the fruit when it is riper and not end up with excessive alcohol levels.

Each label in the Torbreck range tells a story. Many of them, like The Pict, The Laird and The Struie have Celtic origins that can be traced back to the period where David worked as a lumberjack in Scotland. Of particular interest is the Grenache-based Les Amis, made in collaboration with Ignatius Chan as a house wine for the Singapore restaurant of the same name. Dave says, "Everywhere else in the world the wine sells like hot cakes, but in Singapore no other restaurant will carry it because it bears the name of a competitor!" A lot of consideration has gone into the design of the bottle, right down to the type of closure used. David prefers screwcaps, because "Every cork is different. They're like fingerprints, and so every bottle of wine is going to age slightly differently." He notes though, that market perception (particularly in Asia) is that screwcaps mean cheap wine and so a proportion of the higher end wines will still be bottled under cork. The iconic logo, comprising of three trees set against a forest backdrop, was designed in-house by his mother.

In 2009, David embarked on the Natural Wine project, making a wine from organically farmed vineyards and refraining from adding yeast, acids or sulphur during winemaking. Representing a new trend in winemaking, proponents of natural wines argue that they taste better, contain less harmful chemicals and reflect the vineyard properties more closely. But because the wine does not contain any preservatives, it tends to be less stable. David doesn't even sell the wine at the cellar door, only at restaurants because he doesn't want people storing it for years (the wine actually has a use-by date printed on the label) and then complaining that the wine doesn't taste good. "In Australia, it's still a bit of an education process with people." He draws a distinction between natural wines and simply bad winemaking. "It's become such a trend, that there is a lot of natural wine made around the world that is absolutely crap."

We also talk a little about the challenges facing Australian wine. David believes that the Australian dollar is going to remain high for some time, hurting exports of Australian wine. He also takes a strong stand against the involvement of public companies in the Australian wine industry, as they are all about "10% growth,10% profit". He says that their financial models do not take into account agricultural risk, and that "There is no guarantee that you are going to get a certain amount of fruit every year off your vineyard." David took a bold step this year when decided to declassify his entire range of higher-end wines due to a rainy 2011 vintage. "If I was answering to a public company, there is no way they would let me do that," says David.

This focus on quality has cemented Torbreck's reputation as a producer of outstanding wines. Langton's 2010 Classification of Australian Wine included the Runrig Shiraz under the top Exceptional category, calling it "gorgeously opulent, perfumed and densely concentrated." Even the Woodcutter Shiraz and GSM wines display a delicious drinkability that serves as an introduction to the rest of the Torbreck range. 

Many thanks to Geslyn Ngiam of Culina and Sarah Mayo of The Local Nose for setting up the meeting with David. Culina is the local distributor for Torbreck wines.

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